At a press conference Friday, Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan, along with other WNC Sheriffs, touted the success of Operation Western Shield, an anti-child pornography effort he says has led to a number of recent arrests. The assembled officials also praised Rep. Heath Shuler, who helped secure federal funding for the effort and spoke at the conference.
“This used to be an invisible crime and there are still people who think it’s a victimless crime,” Grier Weeks, director of the National Association to Protect Children, who lobbied to get funds for the project, said. “These are crime scene photos. They’re being trafficked on an epidemic scale… But every step these predators take is now there to be tracked.”
As well as Buncombe, the sheriff’s offices of Rutherford, Cherokee, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Swain and Transylvania counties, along with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, also participated in the project.
“Our local sheriffs are truly heroes, and they’re being proactive in dealing with child pornography,” Shuler said, saying that back in 2007, talking to families of abused children (“it was heart-wrenching”) convinced him to try to secure more funding for such an operation, and assist the various agencies in cooperating to pursue child pornography and internet predators. “The most important thing is our next generation and with the work.” Due to the funds, the agencies claim it’s easier to track downloads and trace child pornography back to its source.
The operation has involved $200,000 of federal funds, through the passage of the Protect Our Children Act, resulting in 18 arrests since July — with two in Buncombe — though Cherokee Sheriff Keith Lovin notes that “we’re not going to stop here” and a sheet handed out at the conference tallied a total of 25 arrests throughout the area.
Duncan siad that since his office has devoted a detective to internet child pornography cases, “he’s done 50 cases and we know we have more of this work than one person can do. We’ll continue to compete to get grants to accomplish that. But because this is a problem everywhere the competition for those grants is pretty steep.”
Lovin equated the fight against child pornography with “another war. You hear about the war on drugs, but this is a war for our children. We’re serious about it.”
“This is a bad time of year to be talking to cynical reporters about anything having to do with politics and legislation because of your jaded eye,” Weeks said, praising Shuler’s efforts. “But I’ve been begging him to grandstand a little more on this and he won’t do it.”
Both Duncan and Shuler are running for re-election.
— David Forbes, senior news reporter
Photos by Michael Muller